Accelerated by the provisions of HOPE VI, the dismantling of the nation’s high rise public housing in recent years has garnered a fair amount of attention. Journalistic investigations such as There are No Children Here Anymore portrayed housing projects as infested with inefficient bureaucracy, crime, drugs, and dysfunction (this is not to impugn this work only that its focus did little to ease such tropes). Few observers would argue such conditions were an anomaly or unique to one location or another. Of course, crime, drugs, and dysfunction did afflict many parts of public housing, but in recent years scholarship such as Suhdir Venkatesh’s American Project sought to reevaluate these proliferating tropes. Venkatesh’s work pointed out that in their early years the Robert Taylor Homes did provide clean, safe housing but then because of inattention, lack of funding, and economic distress fell into a problematic spiral of difficulty. Yet, even in this environment, Venkatesh located important complexities. For example, American Project traces the political involvement and local activism in which many residents engaged, moreover, he revealed the complex support systems that many came to depend upon that housing reformers failed to take notice of when imploding public housing. In similar ways, Rhonda Williams The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggle Against Urban Inequality explores public housing as a site in which poor black women not only found shelter but also immersed themselves in political activism/education that perhaps may not have been possible otherwise. In doing so, Williams hopes to accomplish several tasks. First, she connects the efforts of poor black women to wider movements of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s placing their efforts central to housing reforms and responses from municipal, state, and federal governments. Second, Williams work focuses intensely on the experiences of these women (though she also notes that some white working class women also became involved – to a lesser extent) which to a great degree have been ignored (to be fair Venkatesh discusses the feminization of poverty esp. in relation to the high rises and notes that many tenant organizations and representatives featured women … ). Finally, The Politics of Public Housing serves as a direct rebuke to dominant cultural discourses around black women, welfare recipients, and public housing residents. [note – Williams also identifies the intersection of race, class, and gender as factors affecting the hopes and politics of the various actors]
If by the 1990s, public housing elicited images of poverty, crime, lazy welfare recipients and numerous other urban ills, its initial establishment in the 1930s and 1940s reflected far different connotations. Using Baltimore as her city of study, Williams illustrates that though segregated, early housing complexes implied worthiness. Tenant selection processes carefully vetted applicants such that only the “worthy” poor gained admittance, “public housing residency tended to affirm tenants’ worthiness on two levels” means and morals … meeting specific economic and moral standards and successfully competing for the apartments allowed tenants to escape the stigma of the slums and endowed them with status and social currency.” (44) This proved especially true of black applicants whose options in the private housing market remained severely limited. As usual, location of black public housing created contentious debate and ultimately resulted in geographic and social isolation of such units [note – think American Apartheid here]. From its earliest inception, black women occupied vital spaces of activism. In the 1940s, black women and working class women generally organized various “women’s and mothers clubs” along with other civic associations reflecting working class and broader social aspirations. Then as decades later, residents complained of unresponsive management, often critiquing the few black managers who seemed more concerned with the opinions of their white superiors than residents. Tenant committees and resident actions to fix the various problems they identified directly refuted stereotypes about black women and men, “Tenants community efforts challenged the presumption that blight resulted simply from black residency instead of economic factors and city neglect. Residents’ civic participation contested biological immutability and thereby undermined politicized arguments deployed to maintain black people as second class citizens [note- this relates directly to the work of Roger Sanjeck and Steven Gregory whose books on Elmhurst –Corona specifically LeFrak City and the efforts of community activist resident Edna Bass performed a similar task in the 1980-1990s … moreover, Williams points to the use of the private sphere and women’s justification that community improvement etc flowed from them just as caring for the family did …i.e the same force that limited women also could be harnessed as a justification for their broader participation, “used their domestic roles to carve out space as civic activists and entered the public and political realm on behalf of families and communities.” (85)] Such early grassroots organization laid the foundation for “bastions of opposition” through resident councils and other efforts which by the 1960s and 70s blossomed into larger local associations and national movements (NTO, NRO, BNRO, NWRO).
The debates of the 1940s revolved around black residents, especially women, challenging their second class citizenship, claiming their protest as an integral expression of their right to civic engagement as a citizen. In addition, residents to a large degree simply demanded greater responsiveness by officials. By the 1960s (after passing through the red baiting 1950s which took a toll on tenant and civil rights organizations), the same women who simply wanted their voices heard now demanded a role in the running of public housing and the selection of management. During the 1960s and 1970s, poor black women’s demands incorporated the language of human rights, placing special emphasis on more immediate concerns such as employment, economics, survival and dignity. Unfortunately, if public housing initially denoted worthiness the economic decline of cities, white flight, physical deterioration of housing, and the rise in welfare recipients transformed public discourse about public housing to one that denigrated residents, the communities around them, and an articulation of white working class resentment that viewed the government’s support of blacks through public housing as a violation of segregation promises that limited white accessibility to housing and government largess (of course few white observers noted that the govt. already subsidized white home ownership in communities which blacks found themselves barred from not to mention the general mobility enjoyed by all whites at the expense of numerous minorities but esp. blacks.). Black women suffered to a greater degree by the new discourse as they now appeared doubly dependent on the government for housing and financial aid while the increase in single motherhood enabled conservative commentators and some liberals to demean their own character (i.e. Williams points to Patrick Moynihan’s report that blamed black “matriarchy” for much of the dysfunction in black families as only one example). Newspaper reports of the period reinforced such ideas labeling projects as “socialistic”, filled with inherited “problems” that led residents to adopt “a radically different set of values” (126). Black Power and War on Poverty language of the period privileged masculinity assuming that any male in the household was a positive despite the experiences of several women in the book that illustrated such a presence sometimes detracted from rather than added to the lives of various families. Moreover, this discourse focused on the individual, “the conflation of urban space, race, class and gender resulted in power dynamics that focused on individuals versus structures that shaped their lives.” (127). The resulting protests of the 1960s and 1970s surfaced in part as result of not only discourse but also lived experiences, “Low income black women experienced greater scrutiny, government control, daily surveillance and disrepute as recipients of postwar government aid.” (151). Williams identifies the importance of this protest not only as a means to achieve municipal/state/federal reforms but also to counter “depictions of public housing tenants, and poor people more broadly, as the products of urban social ills and as undeserving of citizenship rights.” (151)
These organizations and protests did not occur in a vacuum rather they emerged as part of broader societal and government efforts to combat poverty and assert rights. Great Society programs (OEO, CAA, CAP, VISTA) and black power/feminist movements helped to ignite increased participation. Both public housing residents and welfare recipients joined forces through their various organizations to push for greater rights and better public policies. At times the militancy of black power alienated both blacks and whites, but its emphasis on self-determination and self-sufficiency also appealed to many [Still, as Williams notes “the demand for respect and rights exemplified the shift in poor black women’s social welfare activism.” (194).] As other writers such as Nicholas Lehman in The Promised Land noted the Great Society’s maximum feasible participation policy resulted in the growth of opposition to municipal policies in the very organizations it helped to establish.[of note however, Lehman's work suggests on some level that sharecropper domesticity/sexuality was in some way deviant or damaging for African Americans] Housing institutions such as tenant councils and the citywide resident advisory boards became political schools for black women. The Great Society helped to legitimize their concerns while providing some level of infrastructure for organizing demands, however, though public housing became more democratic the larger systems of inequality remained untouched.
In one of the work’s sharper insights, Williams notes the paradox of poor black women’s activism. The efforts made by these women, though resulting in better living conditions and tangible changes to policy (for example: laws against retaliation against residents were drafted b/c of protest/activism) they also contributed to rising hostility against them as it “”affirmed” federal and public images of black dependency and provided evidence of the danger existent in the welfare way of life.” (242)(she also notes how this activism fed tropes about the overt aggressiveness of black women, their lack of femininity and their usurpation of male authority).